Japan's Daunting Challenge

March 1, 2013 Topic: Grand StrategySecurity Regions: Japan

Japan's Daunting Challenge

Mini Teaser: Shinzo Abe might turn Japan into an isolated, aging, indebted fortress.

by Author(s): Daniel Sneider

Still, important voices in the DPJ argued against a retreat from the Asianist vision. “What is more important than anything is that government officials in charge should be careful not to arouse narrow-minded, extreme nationalism in Japan, China and other countries,” Yoshito Sengoku, chief cabinet secretary at the time, told reporters following the fishing-boat incident. He stressed the importance of good ties between Asia’s two biggest economies: “We want to use all possible channels not to escalate the issue and to solve it for the sake of development in East Asia and the Asia-Pacific region.”

But attitudes toward China hardened within the DPJ, mirroring the broader society, and Noda captured this growing sentiment even before taking office. While acknowledging China’s market role and economic significance in Asia, he pointed to the country’s military buildup and “high-handed” posture in the South China Sea. Upon taking office, Noda sidelined any talk of an East Asian community, expressing undiminished allegiance to the U.S. security alliance and pushing a tough response to Chinese actions.

Not surprisingly, relations between the two countries deteriorated during Noda’s premiership. Tensions over the disputed islands flared ominously following Noda’s 2012 decision to nationalize several of the privately owned islets. The Japanese government portrayed this as a step to ease conflict by preempting a bid from the nationalist governor of Tokyo to buy the islands and put facilities on them. But the action triggered an orchestrated wave of anti-Japanese demonstrations in China and terse diplomatic exchanges.

THE SIMULTANEOUS rise of tensions with South Korea disturbed American policy makers who were pushing for closer security ties between Seoul and Tokyo as a key element of America’s “rebalancing” in East Asia. But wartime history once again interfered with strategic logic. Pushed by a high-court ruling, the South Korean government had sought quietly to get Japan to compensate Korean women—the so-called comfort women—coerced into providing sexual services to the Imperial Japanese Army. But this diplomatic effort fell apart at a December 2011 summit meeting between South Korean president Lee Myung-bak and Noda. In May 2012, a delegation of LDP Diet members, with the support of the Japanese foreign ministry, visited a small New Jersey town in a crude attempt to pressure local officials to remove a monument to the comfort women erected at the behest of the local Korean American community. Lee, pressured to respond and angered by what he saw as Noda’s personal snub, made a provocative visit in August to Korean-held islets that are claimed by Japan and postponed the signing of a minor bilateral agreement to share security intelligence.

Most Japanese and many Americans placed the onus for this flare-up on the Koreans, seen as overly emotional and too fixated on the past. But it’s important to note that Noda’s stance on wartime issues was closer to the LDP’s conservative nationalists than to his own party. The son of an army officer, Noda held a conviction that the Class A Japanese war criminals convicted by the Allies in the Tokyo war-crimes tribunals should not be considered criminals under Japanese law and hence their enshrinement in Yasukuni was acceptable. He also argued that there was no clear proof that Korean women had been subject to official coercion.

The rise in tensions between Japan and its two Northeast Asian neighbors rang alarm bells in Washington. American policy makers were happy to see the DPJ discard its Asianist dreams in favor of a more conventional Yoshida Doctrine realism. But the twinning of that realism with the darker overtones of conservative nationalism created the specter of unwanted and potentially destabilizing conflict.

American officials quickly expressed chagrin when Abe reiterated his long-held revisionist agenda to roll back the 1993 Kono statement of apology to comfort women and the statement by Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama on the fiftieth anniversary of the war apologizing for Japan’s colonial rule and acknowledging Japan as the war’s “aggressor.” Obama administration officials also used the emergence of new governments in Seoul and Tokyo to push for repairing fences and resuming security-coordination talks.

Early evidence suggests that Abe and his colleagues got the message. Envoys were dispatched to China and South Korea, and the historical revisionism has been pushed to the background, at least until after this summer’s upper-house vote. But Abe signaled toughness toward Beijing by dispatching air and naval forces to respond to Chinese deployments in the East China Sea and visiting Southeast Asian nations eager to have Japanese backing in their territorial disputes with China. Still, the pragmatism that prevailed early in Abe’s first premiership is visible once again. The Japanese leader emphasizes the primacy of the security alliance, something he will no doubt display during a planned visit to Washington. He can’t afford signs of distance between Tokyo and Washington over crisis management in the region.

Another impetus for restraint by Abe may be the coming upper-house elections in July. The prime minister is firmly mindful of 2007, when the LDP lost control of parliament’s upper house after running on an unpopular platform of constitutional revision and educational reform designed to infuse patriotism. The DPJ, under Ozawa’s leadership, made huge inroads into the LDP’s rural base by promising to protect retirement pensions and preserve household income. That defeat led to Abe’s resignation after just a year in office and to the DPJ’s triumph two years later.

Abe, seemingly determined to avoid that mistake, has focused on the economy this time. He is eyeing quick returns from a large public-works stimulus program and an effort to drive down the value of the yen through monetary easing. The LDP knows that while it gained a clear majority in the lower house last December, this was attributable mainly to popular dissatisfaction with the DPJ and a splintered vote shared among an array of new parties.

Hopes for stable governance in Japan may rest on the ability of Abe and the LDP to concentrate on economics and downplay the nationalist agenda. But the cabinet reflects an uneasy balance between pro-Western liberals and more radical nationalists. In education policy, for example, the party’s election manifesto called for reform of the textbook-screening process to promote greater “pride in Japanese traditions and cultures,” language associated with right-wing critiques of textbooks’ antiwar themes. The manifesto advocated removal of the requirement that textbooks focus on Japan’s relations with its neighbors, which was imposed in 1982 after a controversial attempt to rewrite textbooks to remove references to Japan’s wartime “aggression.”

The manifesto was drafted at the direction of the new education minister, Hakubun Shimomura, who has declared that the years since World War II “have been a history of Japan’s destruction. Now is our only chance to remake the country.” That agenda, he explained, would begin with reducing the requirement for a two-thirds vote of parliament to put constitutional amendments up for a popular vote, opening the door to easier changes in the constitution.

EVEN IF he keeps his government’s focus on the economy, Abe’s policy prescriptions could pose problems. The LDP’s ranks are filled with opponents of open markets who favor a return to Japan’s old formula of export-led growth and protection of traditional industries. Many of those industries, such as agriculture, construction, medical associations, and the postal-savings and insurance lobbies, oppose the TPP trade agreement for fear that it will expose them to foreign competition. Some 160 LDP Diet members, more than half the total lower-house delegation, were elected with the endorsement of the agricultural cooperatives association on a platform of opposing the TPP. Support for the TPP in the LDP rests more on its anti-China intent and to appease Americans than on its implications for the economy. Even if Abe seeks to join the TPP after an upper-house victory, which seems possible, the government will be pressed to oppose measures that would truly push the Japanese economy in a more reformist, deregulated direction.

Further, a policy of driving down the value of the yen to help ailing Japanese automobile and electronic firms is likely to trigger competitive devaluations by South Korea and China. Increased competition with Korean firms, already moving to take advantage of Japanese woes in China, could push Korea closer to China.

In Washington, the focus of policy makers on narrow security matters often obscures these important economic realities. The Japanese decision to raise defense spending for the first time in a dozen years and to expand Japan’s limited role in assisting the defense forces of countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines is widely praised, for example. But given Japan’s own “fiscal cliff”—accumulated debt is estimated to reach 245 percent of GDP this year—it is unlikely to sustain significant increases in defense spending.

More seriously, if Japan slides into a deeper confrontation with China, the impact on Japan’s economy, and the global economy, could be disastrous. Few in Asia, even those sympathetic to Tokyo, are likely to follow Japan’s lead in confronting China.

Japan’s leadership in Asia does not rest on the dispatch of a few patrol vessels to the Philippines. But the country can offer a clear alternative to China’s self-serving mercantilism and authoritarian rule. Japanese firms should assert their role once again as innovators able to generate breakthrough technologies. That kind of Japan emerged out of the collapse of World War II. Such forces still exist within the country—a new Japan of younger entrepreneurs and innovative firms working in cutting-edge industries and service sectors—but they are unlikely to gain their rightful role in a Japan obsessed with the past.

Image: Pullquote: Below the surface, many Japanese of all political stripes were never comfortable with a strategy of reflexive dependence on the United States.Essay Types: Essay